Who's Michael Rafidi, The Chef Who Won The James Beard Award

The James Beard Awards, one of the most prestigious awards in the culinary world held its latest edition in Chicago and Palestinian-American chef Michael Rafidi, owner of Washington’s Albi Restaurant has received the Outstanding Chef award at the annual James Beard Foundation ceremony. Rafidi was recognised for his dedication to the Arabic and Levantine cuisine served at his restaurant which was founded in February 2020. The Maryland-born chef dedicated his win “to Palestine and to all the Palestinian people out there, whether it's here or in Palestine or all over the world”.

“The only thing I can think about right now is my Palestinian grandparents and my mother,” Rafidi told the audience. “This award is dedicated to Palestine.” Rafidi has been nominated in the same category twice before, as a semi-finalist in 2022 and a finalist in 2023. In May 2022, his restaurant Albi was awarded a Michelin star in recognition of Rafidi, who also owns a Georgetown cafe named Yellow, which serves Arabic-inspired bites and French-inspired dishes.

 The chef had revealed in a recent interview that during his initial years he wasn’t particularly interested in cooking his ancestral food and favoured favouring French dishes and modern cuisine. However, his journey around the Middle East have him a different perspective.

“I decided I should get back to my roots,” he said. “I thought: ‘I want to open my own restaurant. It should have Palestinian food as the star and it should incorporate everything I've learnt in this business.'” Albi, which is Arabic for “my heart” is dedicated to Rafidi’s grandparents and is famed for its traditional open-fire cooking set-up. 

Some of the restaurant’s most well-received numbers are cooked in a live-fire hearth such as the BBQ’D Lamb Kebobs, a hearth-fired tribute to spring with charred radish, pea mutabal, black lime labne, cinnamon stick kefta, and the aged duck shish fired over coals served with smoked beluga lentil stew, fermented habanada and vadouvan labne.

"I am not trying to do verbatim Palestinian food. I grew up here in DC, so this is an American restaurant, but from a Palestinian view. It's really my interpretation of Palestinian food.” Before opening Albi, Rafidi has worked at San Fransico’s French restaurant RN74 and Copenhagen’s highly esteemed Noma. 

Why is the James Beard Award significant?

The nonprofit James Beard Foundation was established in 1986, shortly after James Beard's death, “to celebrate, support and elevate the people behind America's food culture.” Beard was a renowned chef and food writer who was a pivotal figure in the development of American gastronomy. 

The first awards ceremony was held in 1991They are often referred to as the "Oscars of the food world." Winning a James Beard Award is considered one of the highest honors in the culinary industry, and the awards set high standards for culinary excellence, innovation, and hospitality. Since 2015, Chicago has hosted the James Beard Awards, since the city is known to be home to a number of esteemed and emerging chefs.

“Committed to creating a more inclusive and equitable food and beverage industry, the James Beard Foundation works actively towards providing opportunities for underrepresented populations. Through our comprehensive programming, effective advocacy, strategic industry investments, and diligent efforts to embody these values within our organization, we aim to be a driving force in advancing diversity and inclusion for our constituents,” their official website reads.